I have come across many parents of kids who just don’t quite “fit in.” Some parents have told me that their children are dyslexic and are struggling mightily just to read a simple sentence. Others have children on the autism spectrum or suffering from chronic depression. I sympathize, since people in my own family have had to face such daunting challenges. However, in my study of history, I have discovered numerous great people who have had some equally tough mental or physical challenges, and yet somehow managed to overcome them!
So, to encourage you today, I give you five amazing people who faced many of the same “handicaps” kids (and many adults) face today… and turned out to lead very impressive and productive lives. Be encouraged!
1. Martin Luther.
This German monk from the 16th century began the Protestant Reformation by posting the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. However, many people don’t realize that while Luther had keen intellect, wit, humor, and courage… he also suffered from severe depression.
Many historians have examined Luther’s mental state, not only as he wrestled with his sin while a monk, but also later as he struggled with his captivity in the Wartburg Castle and later as the main leader of the Reformation. In fact, because Luther could swing so quickly from euphoria to depression, and stay depressed for such a long time, modern psychiatry and Lutheran scholars (such as the venerable Roland Bainton) have “diagnosed” him with chronic depression. If he were alive today, he probably would have been declared clinically depressed at times. Wouldn’t you be depressed if the armies of Europe were after you? Luther is proof that people who suffer from “dark moods” can still accomplish greatness in this life.
Here’s a great scene from the movie Luther (2003) showing Luther overcoming his fear and giving his famous “Here I Stand” speech:
Nevertheless, in spite of his flaws (like his anti-Semitism late in life) Martin Luther gave the world the German Bible (and consequently the modern “unified” German language), congregational singing, the very idea of public education (since everyone needed to read the Bible on their own), and eventually a more egalitarian society (since he believed in the priesthood of the believer). Not bad for a guy who would be prescribed large doses of Xanax if he went to a doctor today.
2. George Patton.
General George “Blood and Guts” Patton was probably the most flamboyant general of World War II, and he was certainly one of the boldest and most brilliant tacticians of the war. In my humble opinion, his lightning campaign across France would have ended the war by Christmas of 1944 if the Allies had given his tanks enough gas and not wasted men and materiel in General Montgomery’s attack in the Netherlands. But I digress.
Patton most certainly had dyslexia. As a child, he could not read or write until he was eleven years old! Today, he would probably be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) as well, because of his inability to settle down and concentrate on “formal education.” (Some people would say that that is fairly typical of many boys.) Others speculate that he was bipolar due to his enormous mood swings.
Patton could so concentrate on the problem before him that he would often come up with solutions no one else considered. This also made him appear quite rude and callous, however. Other people were simply screened out while he was focusing on the issue before him.
Here is the famous scene from the movie Patton (1970), in which the general slaps a soldier for apparent cowardice:
In spite of what many of his day would call “quirks,” Patton excelled in sports (actually representing the U.S. in the pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics!), history, French (he was quite good in the language), and anything military, of course. Patton is a fascinating person who was brimming with intellectual curiosity, well-placed confidence, and undeniable courage. We could have won World War II without him, but it would have been much more difficult and it would have taken longer.
3. Abraham Lincoln.
Yes the “Great Emancipator” suffered from clinical depression. Back in his day, they simply called it “melancholy.” Lincoln certainly had his reasons for being sad. From the death of his mother, to the death of the woman he loved, Ann Rutledge, to the strange courtship and marriage to Mary Todd, to his multitude of political defeats before he became America’s sixteenth president… Lincoln faced more depressing things than many of us will ever face.
Daniel Day Lewis gives his sterling performance as Lincoln in this scene about the need for the 13th Amendment:
Imagine being the president during a war in which some 700,000 of your fellow countrymen perish. And during that war, your own little boy (Willy Lincoln) dies. No wonder Lincoln would often contemplate suicide and read out loud “dark” poetry. His friends knew of the “dark cloud” that would pass over his face, almost paralyzing him.
Yet Lincoln persevered through each trial. How did he do it? His friends attributed his resilience to his remarkable sense of humor. Lincoln was known for cracking really funny jokes at some of the oddest times, but that is how he coped.
Back then, there were no hospitals to give him the therapy he needed. (I thank God for those medical professionals today who CAN help people with depression!) He just simply refused to give in, he “gutted it out,” and he rose to greatness.
4. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson.
I know, in these “politically correct” emotionally-charged days it is anathema to hold up a Confederate general as an example of anything good. Of course, we would all disagree with fighting for a government that upheld slavery, but we also have to recognize that General Jackson was just as conflicted over the institution as many of America’s founders were. To his credit, he disobeyed the laws of Virginia by establishing a Sunday School for free and enslaved blacks, and he personally taught these students how to read and write.
So what was his disability? Jackson was probably a hypochondriac and also had obsessive/compulsive disorder.
Jackson had all sorts of strange ideas and habits surrounding health. He was, in fact, obsessed with it. He never ate sitting down — he believed that it was better for his digestion if all his organs were “standing” one on top of the other. He also believed his body was too crooked and too heavy on one side. So, to compensate for that, he often walked around with his left hand up in the air — that way the blood from his left side would drain into his right side and “even out” his body. This got him into trouble at the First Battle of Manassas because the tip of his left middle finger got shot because he kept that arm up in the air.
Here is the scene from Gods and Generals (2003) in which Jackson earns his nickname “Stonewall” (and in which he gets shot in his finger):
As a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, Jackson was known as “Tom Fool,” largely because of his incredibly dull lectures. He was known to have memorized the lecture, and if interrupted by a question, he would then start all over at the beginning and recite it again! His students would march behind him, mocking the way he walked, but he never noticed them. He was completely absorbed in whatever he was thinking at the time.
Not everyone fits into the mold that others around us have established. When I was growing up, all four of these people inspired me. If they could overcome their challenges and differences, I could overcome my own as well. Thank God for those who think differently, who persevere through great pain, and come out on the other side stronger in order to bless a world that does not always understand them.